Paris in the Winter

January 13th, 2015

Our Men’s Group devoted part of last night’s regular meeting to discussing the recent terror attacks in Paris.

Comments were wide-ranging, reflecting the many political orientations of our membership. Some cited history, others sought to find common ground among opponents, others suggested specific prayers. My own worry is that Islamists have become so extreme in their views that they will only be stopped by violence.

Is the sanguine view of liberal Christians that at their heart, all religions are basically the same now a dubious assumption? We have always dissociated ourselves from Christian fanatics who pervert the Gospel in favor of prejudice. But the Islamist fanatics seem to be taking their beliefs to a new level of extremism. (One indication of this development is that Islamic State was founded by a group of Islamists who were kicked out of Al-Qaeda because they were regarded as too violent!) It now remains to be seen whether Islam can restore its own reputation and be regarded as one way among many to the Divine. –J. Douglas Ousley

What Would Jesus Do?

December 17th, 2014

Not too long ago, some Christians were wearing the letters, “WWJD.” They stood for, “What would Jesus do?”

The letters were intended to remind the wearer that, when faced with a difficult moral decision, Christians should always ask themselves what Jesus would do if he were in the same situation.

The fad has passed–and just as well. For Jesus never had to decide whether to drink and drive or whether to support hydraulic fracturing or any number of modern ethical dilemmas; the question is meaningless in those situations.

Much more important is to ask what Jesus does do. We have countless reminders of the answer to this question in the Advent and Christmas seasons when we are reminded that Jesus is a “Savior.” He has come to save us from our sins–to save us from ourselves. Jesus doesn’t save us from pain or toil or heartbreak, but he does save is from giving up in the face of pain.

“What does Jesus do?” What is Christ our Savior already doing for us? –J. Douglas Ousley

All’s Fair

December 1st, 2014

The 72nd Annual Incarnation Christmas Fair will be held this Saturday from 11 AM to 6 PM.

Seventy-two years of Fair is a lot. This event attracts more visitors and phone calls, not to mention money, than any other non-liturgical happening at Incarnation. Admittedly, it’s a sop to consumerism. It also produces much-needed revenue.

But the Fair has other advantages for our church. It gives us a chance to meet and greet many people we wouldn’t otherwise encounter because they don’t share our faith. It demonstrates to the surrounding world that we aren’t just a pile of expensively-repaired stones.

Above all, the gifts on sale are unsubtle reminders of the reason for the season: the Incarnation of the Son of God. The greatest gift of our God.

Which is why this isn’t a a holiday fair. It’s a Christmas Fair. –J. Douglas Ousley

Great Expectations

November 22nd, 2014

The annual Convention of the Diocese of New York last weekend spawned the usual number of socially conscious resolutions. Numerous reports were presented of the good works performed by the diocese’s 200 congregations.

But the workshop on parish growth noted that the Episcopal Church tends often to have low expectations of its membership. They aren’t expected to tithe their incomes or attend church every Sunday. They don’t need to raise their children in the church or profess all the doctrines of the Creeds.

The workshop leader said that this attitude wasn’t conducive to church growth. Instead, church members should be encouraged to strive beyond their comfort zones. And church leaders shouldn’t be afraid to challenge their congregations to work harder and do more. I can’t think of anything in this advice that is contrary to the imperatives of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. –J. Douglas Ousley

For Gratitude Week at Incarnation

October 27th, 2014

One of the first speakers I ever heard on the subject of giving—at a time when “stewardship” was an unfamiliar word in the Episcopal Church—said that Christians shouldn’t make donations to the church out of a sense of duty. Nor should they tithe because they felt guilty if they didn’t.

            Rather, he said, Christians should make their offerings from a sense of gratitude for all that we have received from a loving God. We should give because we are thankful; we should give because we enjoy the fruits of God’s creation.

            And not only is this the right attitude. It also feels better! –J. Douglas Ousley


John Andrew, RIP

October 17th, 2014

One of the great figures of the Episcopal Church in this city. The Rev. Canon John Andrew, OBE, died this morning following a stroke. By means of his truly charismatic personality and remarkable preaching, he turned St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue from a sleepy backwater into a national center of classical Anglican worship. Rarely does one person have such an institutional effect.

John Andrew was a mentor to me. He preached at my installation as Rector in Rome in 1981 and at my installation at Incarnation in 1985. He also gave the homily at the funeral of my first wife in 2008. He loved my sons, John and Andrew.

At a time when clergy are so often bland and meek, John Andrew never suffered fools gladly. He was a giant in the clerical world. May he rest in peace. –J. Douglas Ousley

Courtroom Rituals

October 15th, 2014

I am on jury duty in federal court this week and next. Yesterday, I was nearly selected for a projected two-week trial; I was excused at the last minute, after spending the day hearing juror interviews in a beautifully restored courtroom.

As I had never been on a jury and rarely visited courts, I saw the whole scene with an outsider’s perspective. Yet from the clergyman’s point of view, I couldn’t help noticing the juridical parallels with church rituals. The judge in robes, seated high above everyone else, directing the proceedings; all lawyers and prosecutors in black suits; many repeated speeches and actions; solemnity prevailing even in the audience–no talking, reading, eating. 

In other words, very like church! Which I guess is good–people take the judicial process seriously. And it is, indeed, the secular guarantor of political freedom, as our faith guarantees our spiritual freedom. –J. Douglas Ousley

Low Point near the High Line

October 3rd, 2014

The article in the New York Times yesterday was only the latest of many media considerations of the current dispute at General Theological Seminary in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Eight faculty members declared they could and would no longer fulfill their contracts unless seminary trustees addressed their criticism of Dean Kurt Dunkle’s leadership. The Board promptly declared that the faculty members had resigned and the Dean has since been planning to keep the classes going without them.

Among the nastier aspects of this situation are quotes in a faculty letter to the trustees that have the Dean expressing racist and sexist prejudices. On the other hand, the faculty members did take the risk of going over the head of the Dean; in my own experience on boards of directors, boards usually prefer to back the CEO in such cases. If the trustees don’t have confidence in him or her running the organization, they should find someone else to lead, rather than attempting to micro-manage alongside the appointed administration.

Although I have not myself been impressed with previous public statements from Dean Dunkle, and I find the faculty charges to be disturbing (especially the quotations), I am also sympathetic with students and alumni who are trying to stay on the sidelines in this dispute. The waters are muddy and it is by no means obvious to me what side God is on. Very sad. –J. Douglas Ousley

Religion and Politics on Madison Avenue

September 29th, 2014

“More Americans Back a Voice for Religion in Politics” proclaimed the headline of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. 

The results of the poll the Journal was reporting indicate that, in fact, 49% of Americans think that churches should express views on political issues and 48% think the churches should keep out of politics. The real interest of the poll was that there are now “more” Americans on the positive side than there used to be.

Of course, both sides of the political spectrum are themselves divided: some conservatives and liberals favor intervention in issues they feel passionate about; others believe in strict separation of church and state.

My own view is that in all except the most extreme and important issues, politics should stay out of the pulpit. I recently expressed concern about the rise of anti-Semitism in a sermon, for example. But I have confined my views on gay marriage to this blog and to other forums where debate is possible. I believe Christians must oppose anti-semitism, while they might hold different positions on homosexuality.

All in all, I think the churches should be very careful about making pronouncements on controversial secular topics. –J. Douglas Ousley

How Am I Doing?

September 16th, 2014

When he was mayor of New York City, the late Ed Koch used to begin his press conferences by asking, “How am I doing?” Being a feisty New Yorker, he expected honest answers and he was more than willing to parry criticisms.

Today, there are few politicians with the courage to ask for face-to-face comments on their performance. Yet Koch asked a question of himself that they should ask–and we should ask, too. How are we doing–as Christians, as citizens, as neighbors, as family members? It’s also a good question to pose as members of church communities–how are our parishes doing? What are we doing well? Not so well? What means are we using to evaluate our work for God’s Kingdom?

In our parish, we are beginning a process of self-examination and planning called, “Incarnation 2020.” At the beginning of the school year and the autumn uptick in activity, this seems like the right thing to be doing. In this regard, at least, we can answer Ed Koch’s question, “OK.” –J. Douglas Ousley